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In reporting on poverty in Memphis, Chicago and Muncie it struck me that there may be a change in the nature of poverty. It's striking how well understood is the message that the way to get ahead in society is to get a college education--community college, junior college, a public four year university degree. That's the good news. Take a look at the vast numbers of high school graduates that go on to higher education in the first year after graduation.

The bad news is how many people I've interviewed that went to a community college for a year, a year and a half, maybe 2 to 3 years at a public university, but never finished. They didn't get a degree. So, they didn't get any of the job or career benefits of higher education. Take a look at the numbers that don't graduate in 4 years (or even in 6) and don't complete community college.

What the low income students do get is student loans--lots of student loans (at least relative to income). And you can't discharge public or private student loans in bankruptcy. The student loan debt burden is real. All you then need to happen is a medical illness, a lay off, some sort of setback, and the person is back in poverty and the student loans simply make the situation worse.

In the 1990s and 2000s a consensus emerged that homeownership was the best anti-poverty program. Or at least it was an anti-poverty program that could garner bi-partisan support. And there were genuine gains made through homeownership. Problem is, the predatory lenders took advantage of the situation. I still think with more thoughtful regulation the abuses could have been minimized.

To some extent, we have an education boom going. It isn't a stupid idea. Education is the way out of poverty. Education pays. But the details of how that is accomplished matter a lot. We don't want a situation where low income students end up with lots of debt and no degree--the educational equivalent of equivalent creating subprime mortgage neighborhoods. Public policy needs to be aware of the debt dangers.

I'm going to look into this more closely. At this point it's a suspicion and a concern.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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